Cascade County elections group files COPP ethics complaint, Library lawyers up

By: - April 22, 2023 10:32 am

The Commissioner of Political Practices office. (Commissioner of Political Practices)

A local elections group in Great Falls filed an ethics complaint against newly elected Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant and other county officials alleging electioneering and more than 20 untrained volunteers working in the Elections Office.

A newly formed group called the Election Protection Committee said it filed the complaint earlier this week with the Commissioner of Political Practices.

The complaint comes as the Great Falls Public Library Board threatened legal action against Merchant if the Elections Office can’t competently conduct the upcoming mill levy election.

“The voters of Great Falls have the greatest interest in clear, timely, and certain information regarding the election, and in its successful operation,” the letter from attorney Raph Graybill read. “Failure to conduct the library election or failure to adhere to your full responsibilities to conduct it fairly and in accordance with Montana law will likely severely damage the Great Falls Public Library and may result in legal action against you.”

The upcoming mill levy election June 6 will determine if the library can get the extra funds it needs in order to prevent staffing and service shortages.

Merchant did not respond to an emailed request for comment in time for publication.

These complaints and concerns come after Merchant, who took office in January after narrowly defeating 16-year incumbent Rina Moore, previously said in emails to impacted districts that she would be unable to send out ballots for the upcoming then all mail-in ballot elections.

Merchant gave a presentation in March about how she would be conducting the upcoming elections, which besides the June 6 levy election, include school board and special district elections, as a hybrid poll and absentee ballot election.

Brian Patrick with Great Falls Public Schools said after the meeting Merchant had not answered all their questions, especially as it concerned cost. Patrick said the reason for changing the election seemed to be around the cost of using a third party for mail sorting, but that since the elections office was doing it in-house, he believed an all-mail election should be doable.

The district had tried to request going back to an all mail-in ballot election, but Patrick said the deadline to change how the election was conducted had passed.

Patrick later forwarded an estimate relayed from Merchant to the district that had the election costing $41,000, within the school’s budget.

Absentee ballots for the Great Falls Public School District election and special district elections were mailed out April 17, but some voters say they received duplicate ballots or could not fit their ballot in the return envelope.

The letter from the library board, first reported by the Electric, requests the elections office give a detailed summary of plans for the upcoming election including an official election calendar, whether the election would include a poll election, and the office’s policies for the security of the ballot counting process, among other requests.

Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki said Merchant is actively working on a response to the letter and plans to provide answers within the seven days requested.

Commissioner of Political Practices Chris Gallus was not available by phone Friday to confirm the office received the complaint from the Election Protection Committee.

The complaint, which was made against Cascade County Commission Chair Rae Grulkowski, Merchant, and Cascade County Election Specialist Devereaux Biddick, said the elections office was involved in distributing anti-library levy stickers within the office during business hours.

Electioneering is not permitted within 100 feet of an entrance to a polling location, according to the Montana Code Annotated. People can submit their ballots at the Election Office through May 1.

The complaint listed this action as a violation under employer rules for elections staff.

On April 17, the day absentee ballots went out for the school election, the complaint said Merchant and her office “constructed a barrier of mobile shelving units to obstruct the view of elections observers.”

The complaint said she threatened calling law enforcement against people taking photos, as well as “allowed her staff to taunt and harass elections observers, and the press; (and) allowed her staff to chant and sing religious songs.”

The complaint also said Merchant and Grulkowski were enlisting the help of volunteers that self-identified as election deniers and the volunteers had no oversight by the county.

Racki said the county has a record of the names of that volunteers working to fill ballots.

The complaint said volunteers had also been vocally against the library levy at a meeting earlier this year and a number of them had signed a petition in 2022 against the county using mail ballots; advocated to eliminate electronic vote tabulation machines; wanted to implement ballot turn-in on election day only; and advocated to purge voter rolls by requiring all qualified county residents to re-register.

Merchant is a businesswoman who is known to be associated with election-deniers in Cascade County.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.